Monthly Archives: January 2018

State of the Union’s Infrastructure

Remember America’s crumbling infrastructure that supposedly needs trillions of dollars for maintenance and rehabilitation? President Trump doesn’t. Instead, the seven sentences in his state of the union speech that focused on infrastructure talked about building “gleaming new” projects rather than fixing existing systems.

The only real news is that he is upping the ante from $1.0 trillion to “at least $1.5 trillion.” More disturbingly, other than mentioning an “infrastructure deficit” — which could just as easily be interpreted to mean a shortage of new infrastructure as a deficit in maintenance — Trump said nothing about fixing existing infrastructure. Instead, he wants to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways.”

Why? We have plenty of railways. Though the railroads have trimmed the nation’s rail mileage by 45 percent since 1916, they move more freight than ever and seem to be quite capable of adding capacity where they need it without government help. High-speed trains, meanwhile, are pointless when we have planes that can go twice as fast and don’t require hundreds of billions of dollars of supporting infrastructure. Continue reading

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Paying People to Ride Transit

Denver urban planner Drew Willsey has what he thinks is a great idea: relieve traffic congestion by paying people to ride transit. He accepts, reluctantly, that the billions of dollars Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) has spent on rail transit hasn’t worked: transit’s share of commuting has dropped from 4.9 percent in 2000 to 4.6 percent in 2016, and, considering ridership is dropping, probably lower in 2017.

Unfortunately, like many other planners, Willsey can’t get the idea that transit is the solution to everything out of his head. He implicitly assumes that transit is good, cars are bad, and the most cost-effective way of relieving congestion is always by increasing transit.

In Denver, at least, none of these assumptions are true. The Transportation Energy Data Book says that cars used about 3,000 BTUs and light trucks about 3,600 BTUs per passenger mile in 2015 (and probably slightly less in 2016). The National Transit Database says RTD used 3,800 BTUs per passenger mile in 2016. Cars emit about 212 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, light trucks 268, and RTD 272. Certainly some cars and trucks are worse, but some are much better. Continue reading

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Amtrak 2017 Report

Amtrak recently posted its September 2017 Monthly Performance Report, which includes cumulative data for F.Y. 2017 as a whole. Unfortunately, with the September report, Amtrak changed the format of its monthly reports, reducing the size from 90-some pages (such as this one for 2016) to five. What is Amtrak trying to hide?

Unlike an annual report (which Amtrak hasn’t yet published for 2016), the monthly performance reports have data for each of 46 Amtrak routes. This includes the Northeast Corridor (broken down into Acela and “regional” trains), 29 state-supported day trains, and fifteen overnight or long-distance trains. The abbreviated train-by-train data in the new-format reports includes gross revenues, operating expenses, fare revenues, seat miles, and passenger miles. Continue reading

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Nashville today to speak at a conference tomorrow about the future of Nashville’s transportation, the mayor’s light-rail plan, and what should be done instead.

Click image to download a PDF of this conference flyer.

As the first speaker, the Antiplanner will argue that light rail is expensive, obsolete, and hasn’t improved per capita transit ridership in most of the cities that have built it. Later speakers will discuss alternatives such as ways to relieve congestion and driverless cars. If you are in central Tennessee, I hope to see you there.

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Housing in 293 Urban Areas in Nine Nations

Early this week, Wendell Cox released his latest annual survey of housing affordability of metropolitan areas around the world. “Housing affordability cannot be evaluated except in relation to incomes,” he notes, and he compares median home prices with median household incomes in each of 293 urban areas.

At one time, he says, home prices in nearly all of these urban areas were between two and three times household incomes, and they still are in dozens of housing markets in the United States and Canada, as well as a few in Ireland. In other parts of the world, however, home prices have risen to, in some cases, more than ten times household incomes. Of the 293 urban areas documented by Cox, about a quarter have median home prices that are more than five times incomes, and another quarter are between four and five times incomes.

In the United States, lenders generally allow borrowers to pay up to 28 percent of their incomes on a mortgage. At 4 percent interest, a household can dedicate 28 percent of their income to a mortgage on a home that costs three times their annual income and pay it off in 15 years. When home prices reach four times their annual incomes, they need more than 20 years to pay off the loan. At five times their incomes, more than 30 years are required. At six times their incomes, they would need to get a 48-year loan, which is not available in current markets. At seven times their incomes, it becomes impossible for them to buy the house without dedicating more of their incomes to the mortgage than most lenders would allow. Continue reading

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Leaked Trump Infrastructure Plan?

Someone claims to have obtained a leaked document relating to the mythical Trump infrastructure plan. The document is sketchy and contains no hard dollar figures, but it gives an idea of what might be in a final plan.

The document proposes seven different initiatives or programs. The largest, called the Infrastructure Incentives program, would get half of any appropriations to pay for up to 20 percent of the cost of “core infrastructure projects” including transport, water, power, superfund, and flood control projects. The document doesn’t seem to distinguish between new projects and rehabilitation of existing ones, so the politicians who seek the funds would probably be biased in favor of new. Projects would be rated on a variety of criteria the most important of which would be the ability of the state or local government to sustain financing for the project.

Rural infrastructure is the second-largest program, getting 25 percent of funding for transport, water, power, and broadband. The funds would be distributed as block grants rather than matching funds, based on each state’s population and rural road miles. Continue reading

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Transportation Energy Costs

The average car on the road consumed 4,700 British thermal units (BTUs) per vehicle mile in 2015, which is almost a 50 percent reduction from 1973, when Americans drove some of the gas-guzzliest cars in history. The average light truck (meaning pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs) used about 6,250 BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015, which is also about half what it was in the early 1970s.

Click on the above image to download a 10.2-MB PDF of the above report. Use links below to download spreadsheets or individual chapters from the report.

By comparison, the average transit bus used 15 percent more BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015 than transit buses did in 1970. Since bus occupancies have declined, BTUs per passenger mile have risen by 63 percent since 1970. While buses once used only about half as much energy per passenger mile as cars, they now use about a third more. Continue reading

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November 2017 Ridership Falls 1.9 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership in November 2017 was 1.9 percent lower than the same month in 2016, while ridership for the first eleven months of 2017 was 2.5 percent lower than the same period in 2016. If similar numbers are posted for December, then total annual ridership will have fallen below 10 billion trips for the first time since 2010.

These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s November update to its National Transit Database. The update includes passenger trips, vehicle revenue miles, and vehicle revenue hours by month from January 2002 through November 2017, broken down by transit agency and mode. These numbers may be preliminary and might change slightly in later updates. These numbers are also for calendar years so will differ from the final 2017 report, which is based on each agency’s fiscal year. Continue reading

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U.S. Infrastructure: Not about to Collapse

A recent report from the RAND Corporation looks at America’s infrastructure and concludes that “not everything is broken.” In face, what is broken, more than the infrastructure itself, is “our approach to funding and financing public works.” This is largely because governments by-pass market signals and rely on “often complicated and multilayered governance arrangements and competing public goals and preferences” to make decisions about where to spend money.

For example, the report shows that government spending on infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product declined from a peak of 3 percent of GDP in 1960 to about 2.5 percent in 1980, and has hovered between 2.5 and 2.7 percent since then. But governments also made a clear trade-off in infrastructure spending: spending on roads declined from 1.6 percent of GPD in 1960 to around 1 percent in and since 1980, while government spending on mass transit grew from 0.1 percent in 1970 to 0.4 percent in and since 1980.

This would be fine if spending on mass transit had been as productive as spending on highways had been. But it wasn’t. Until the 2008 financial crisis, per capita driving continued to grow despite the lack of much capital spending on new roads, while per capita transit ridership was stagnant or declining. The report doesn’t have data after 2014, when per capita driving began to increase again while transit ridership began to collapse. Continue reading

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Metro’s Unsurprising Derailment

Washington Metro officials pretended to be shocked when a Red Line train derailed due to a broken rail on Monday. In fact, the break should not and probably didn’t surprise any of them.

“It’s like, God, didn’t we do all of the fixing, the bad areas, SafeTrack?” rambled Metro’s board chair, Jack Evans. “All that stuff was intended to prevent stuff like this from happening.” Actually, Evans knows perfectly well that the SafeTrack work was superficial and the system still needs $15 billion to $25 billion of maintenance and rehabilitation work.

“This rail was manufactured in 1993, which may sound old but actually rail can last 40, 50 years,” said Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, “so it’s not particularly old in the railroad business.” Actually, it is. Continue reading

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